21 Questions: Paula Scher

Photo-Illustration: Curbed; Photo: Christopher Garcia Valle

New York’s “21 Questions” column is back with an eye on creative New Yorkers. Paula Scher, the graphic designer, painter, and Pentagram Partner — who created brand identities for MoMA, the Public Theater, Shake Shack, and NYC Parks Department, among dozens of other organizations — currently has a retrospective on view at the Museo Nacional de Artes Decorativas, in Madrid.

Name: Paula Scher

Age: 73

Neighborhood: NoMad

Occupation: Graphic Designer

What’s hanging above your couch? 

In pure honesty, nothing because my couch is in the middle of the room. But about 10 feet behind my couch is one of my paintings of the United States and on the side of my couch is one of my husband, Seymour Chwast’s, paintings of war. We only hang our own work in the living room. Why give anyone else valuable space?

What’s the first job you had in New York?

Designing the inside of children’s books at Random House. I lasted about a year and a half.

What color are you always drawn to? 

Black and white. No color. This is really in relation to how I start working and where I go first. If a design works in black and white — which is the clearest view of it — it’ll work in any color.

What art or artifact are you most surprised you own?

Artifacts are not a big part of our lives. We used to have lots of knickknacks — antique toys and things designers always have — but I decided it was really creepy and got rid of them.

Which New Yorker would you want to hang out with?

Fran Lebowitz. Well, I don’t really want to hang out with her. I just want to listen to her. She doesn’t have to talk to me. I just think she’s hilarious and right all the time.

What’s the last thing you made with your hands?

I painted a roadmap of the United States on a 1977 Porsche for a collector during COVID. It took me a year to finish since I had to learn how to paint over curves.

Is there one thing you own multiple versions of?

I have three pairs of boots that are exactly the same style but in three different colors from Maria Cornejo. They’re leather with a heel and come right up to the knee.

What New York City museum do you always go back to?

MoMA — I go there because it never disappoints. I go there because if it disappoints, there’s always a gallery I go into that doesn’t. I go there because I like to be mad at it when I’m mad at it. I go there to go shopping. And also because they collect some of my work. That’s also nice.

What do you always have next to your computer?

I guess it’s usually a pad and a glass of water.

Where is the best view of the city?

Driving back from either LaGuardia or Kennedy, there’s a part of the Long Island Expressway that’s high on a hill right when you’re starting to slide down to the Midtown tunnel where you have this perfect view of the New York City skyline. It’s just amazing.

What building or object do you want to redesign every time you see it?

The so-called One World Trade Freedom Tower. It’s screwing up the skyline. It’s way out of scale. It looks dumb. It dwarfs everything in a bad way and it makes everything look imbalanced. If you could sort of just reduce it by 25 percent, it would be all right. Buildings with satisfying proportions are starting to disappear. There was nothing better than the Chrysler building. I mean, that’s so totally gorgeous. But now there’s this other skyscraper behind it that has kind of a zigzag-y pattern of lights that makes it look like the Chrysler building got fatter. I wish people would stop messing around with the skyline. I think it’s very greedy. You need a design commissioner, somebody to go out to that spot I was talking about on the Long Island Expressway and make an assessment and start giving fines.

What’s one thing you would change about your field? 

I wish the general public understood clearly the difference between what a graphic design firm does and what an advertising agency does. People who design identities and things that are supposed to be lasting operate and do business differently than people who are doing promotion. Right now I feel like promotion is the driving force in design. For example, the logo that was just designed for Facebook and their silly company is a really a bad logo, but it animates nicely. So it’s a sort of thing that’s going to tweet well and will be good on Instagram, but the form is horrible.

If you could live anywhere in New York City, where would it be?

NoMad. Reason one is we have enough space, two is I like the people in the building, three is that I can walk to work, four is Eataly and a pile of great restaurants have opened in the neighborhood and I never have to go off my block.

What would you hoard, if it stopped being produced?

Silverware. It’s always disappearing in my home. We’re always low on forks and spoons.  

What do you do to get out of a creative rut? 

I really like to walk uptown and downtown, and east and west, and look in the store windows and at signs on the street. I really liked doing this during COVID because I could actually see the landscape. My neighborhood is filled with really crummy signs and beat up things that need to be fixed. I walk down the street and think about how I’d redo everything. I always wanted to be an art director of New York where I could just walk over and say, “Change that.”

Where was your first NYC apartment and how much was the rent? 

It was on the Upper West Side: 92nd Street between West End and Riverside. This was in 1970 and I lived with three women. I think the total rent was something like $400 and we paid $125 a piece or something like that. One of them slept in the living room on a pullout couch. It wasn’t great.

Where in the city do you go to be alone?

A taxi cab. It isn’t that I go there to be alone. That’s where I am alone. Taxi cabs for me are very special because you sit in the back, you don’t have to talk to anybody, you can look out the window and you can sort of let your mind wander.

Worst piece of career advice you’ve ever gotten?

Someone told me not to join Pentagram. How’s that for a terrible piece of career advice?

What have you given away to someone that you wish you could get back?

I gave away these posters I did in the early ’80s at CBS records — one for Elvis Costello that said “Trust Elvis” and one called “The Best of Jazz.” I don’t have a single copy left because I gave them all away. When I make something, I don’t have any sense of it becoming collected. And then there are things I made that were horrible that are famous and that drives me nuts. It’s terrible!

What’s your favorite NYC restaurant and regular order? 

I’m lazy so I go to the closest restaurant where I like the food and that’s La Pecora Bianca.

What I really liked to do — before COVID, now it’s harder — is to sit at the counters and have dinner. We would go at least once a week and have meatballs and eggplant and a glass of red wine.

What descriptive phrase do you want on your obit headline?

Well, I can tell you what I don’t want. How’s that? Don’t put down “Designer of the Boston cover.” I always hated it and it just doesn’t go away. It just doesn’t go away.

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